Sunday, October 22, 2017

Rendering Unto...

PROPERS:         PROPER 24, YEAR A          
TEXT:                 MATTHEW 22:15-22

ONE SENTENCE:        Our response to God’s gracious goodness should come after reflection, prayer, and thoughtful consideration.      

            Twenty-five years ago, I was serving as an associate at a large, wealthy southern parish.  I had been out of seminary for five years, having served primarily as vicar of a wonderful little congregation on the Mississippi Gulf Coast.

            At this large congregation, I was one of seven clergy on staff – four full-time priests, two part-time priests, and a part-time deacon.

            This congregation was located at the crossroads of a very wealthy neighborhood.  It was an institution of wealth and power.  On the first Easter after it was founded three decades earlier, more than 1,000 people attended the service.

            The church included a staff of over twenty people, including two full-time sextons.  A pre-school and kindergarten, with several hundred students, was located in its buildings.  A paid choir led the music.  More than 800 people typically attended the three Sunday services.

            At the 5:30 p.m. Christmas Eve service, I preached to more than 1,000 worshipers.

            You get the drift.

            The Vestry was comprised of CEOs of prominent corporations.  These people did not come to town on a watermelon truck.  As one might guess, the primary focus of Vestry meetings was finances.  Members pored over the financial statement with gimlet eyes for the details.

            That fall – 25 years ago – the congregation was entering into every member canvass.  The chair of the canvass was invited to address the Vestry to share his plans for the approaching campaign.  A cynical perspective might have been that, given the affluence of the congregation, the every-member canvass was like shooting fish in a barrel.  But it was not that simple; there was a massive institution to support.

            The chair of the committee came to the Vestry meeting to speak and share his plans.  The grace of God has allowed me to forget his name.  His opening salvo captured the essence of his plan:

            “I think our campaign theme should be simple – ‘Pony-up for the lord.’”

            No complicated theology.  No deep spirituality. Nothing to prompt thought or reflection. Simply pony-up.

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            Jesus is on the horns of a dilemma in the gospel lesson today.

            Keep in mind the setting in Matthew’s gospel.  Jesus has already entered the Holy City of Jerusalem triumphantly on the day we call Palm Sunday.  Likewise, he has caused an uproar on the Temple Mount by throwing the money changers and merchants out of the Temple.

            To put it mildly, he has stuck his finger in the eye of the religious authorities.  So, the various influence groups of that day are seeking ways to trap him – in words or deeds.

            Significant groups would play their parts in the coming days.  The Pharisees were the experts on the Law and its many nuances of application.  The Sadducees were the wealthy, influential group, closely aligned with the ruling Roman authorities.  The third group, the Herodians, were closely tied to the Roman-sponsored, titular king, Herod Antipas, son of Herod the Great.

            In the gospel lesson today, it is the Pharisees and Herodians that are trying to entrap Jesus.  They conspired to ask him a question – a question which they believe has no suitable answer: “Tell us, is it lawful to pay taxes to the Emperor or not?”

            They believe they have crafted the ideal question.  If he says that it is lawful to pay taxes, there would be an uprising from the Jewish population – a people who suffered under an oppressive and arbitrary tax burden from Rome.

            If, on the other hand, he said it was not lawful to pay taxes to Rome, he would offend the Roman authorities, who would quickly crush such a view.

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            Jesus is not going to be drawn in to one of their expected answers.  He says, “Show me the coin… Whose image is on it?”  The image on the coin, of course, is Caesar’s.

            Jesus’s response both avoids the obvious and invites reflection: “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and unto God the things that are God’s.”

            The questioners left in stunned silence.

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            It seems to be the case that Jesus frequently does not answer questions simply or easily.  To coin a word, he complexifies the answer.
            Over the last 10 years, people of all political stripes have differed over the things that are Caesar’s – or, to bring it closer to home, the things that are Washington’s… or, the things that are Montgomery’s.

            We make our views known through the ballot box, and some of us even express ourselves in communications to our elected leaders.  And every April 15, we render unto Caesar.

            The tension between the two poles – what belongs to Caesar and what belongs to God – is complicated by this theological statement: “Stewardship is what we do with everything after we say, ‘I believe.’

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            Jesus’ model, as always, is a good one to follow… unlike the superficial slogan, “Pony up for the Lord.”  He does not simplify the challenge.  He actually adds layers of complication.
            He invites reflection.  He encourages discernment.  What belongs to God?

            That is a question which each of us should answer.  But it should not be without thought… without prayer… without heartfelt consideration.

            Such thought and reflection is the soul work into which Jesus invites us.  To discern what we are called to be and do.  To consider how we apportion the blessings of our lives.

Monday, October 16, 2017

An Invitation to Bear Fruit

PROPERS:          PROPER 23, YEAR A 
TEXT:                 MATTHEW 22:1-14

ONE SENTENCE:        As Christians, we need to reflect on the values we intend the embrace, and repent of others.

            It is good to be back with you today, after last Sunday’s Hurricane Nate hiatus.

            Fortunately, the gospel lessons for last week and this week have similar themes.  And that does not mean that you are going to get a sermon that is twice as long today! It merely means I can double-down on the point of the lessons – at least as I see them.

            Last week’s gospel lesson was the Parable of the Tenants.  It is the well-known story of the wicked land tenants who refused to give the landowner his due portion of the harvest.  In refusing to do so, they reject, beat, and kill the landowner’s representatives.

            The upshot is that Jesus is telling the Pharisees – read, religious authorities – this parable.  He tells them that they have not been faithful stewards of God’s vineyard and that God will throw them out and give the kingdom to someone else.

            As you might guess, that parable was not well-received by the Pharisees.

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            Today’s gospel, as I read it, carries a similar theme.  It is the Parable of the Wedding Banquet.

            In Jesus’ story, a king issues an invitation for people to come to his son’s wedding banquet.  As is the case with many invitations today, there were few RSVPs.  If the people did respond, they gave lame excuses.  The king was not pleased.  So, he invited others – we are to assume not the “A” list – the great unwashed; those considered unworthy.

            This, too, is a story of those who have been chosen, failing to follow the call of one who gives, one who invites.

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            It is not hard to decipher the meaning of these parables.  Those who have been blessed… those who have received… those who were privileged… have rejected the call and responsibility.  The Kingdom of God will be bequeathed to someone more receptive.

            Jesus does not sugar-coat it: “Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom.”

            It is no surprise then, that in Matthew’s account, in a few short days Jesus would be crucified.  His words had offended the religious authorities.  From Jesus’ point of few, they had not produced the fruits of the kingdom.

            These two parables – from last Sunday and today – raise two questions in my mind.  And then they lead to a third matter.

            The first question is, what are fruits of the Kingdom?

            The second question is, have we produced fruits of the Kingdom?

            Just ponder those questions for a moment.  Don’t run to quick and facile answers.  Stay with the questions for a few moments… while I challenge you a little more. Maybe more than a little.

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            Think for a moment of what we will be doing in a few minutes.  After the Creed.  After the Prayers of the People.  The General Confession.

            Have mercy upon us, most merciful Father;
            in your compassion forgive us our sins,
            known and unknown,
            things done and left undone…

            This is not the personal confession.  This is not your personal accountability. This is a corporate confession – the confession of the Body.  This is not the opportunity to confess those personal failures or tendencies in your own life. This is the time when the gathered body of worshippers say together, Have mercy upon us, most merciful Father…

            Those words… those few moments of the service… are the opportunity we have to reflect on what we have done or not done as inheritors – as stewards -- of the kingdom with which we have been entrusted.

            We, now, are the tenants of the vineyard.

            We, now, are the people invited to the wedding banquet.

            What have we done to bring forth fruits of the Kingdom?

            The answer may well be all that we can do. Our response may be what more can be reasonably expected? And, maybe not.

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            I think it is important that we not hear the parables from last Sunday and today and think that they were relevant only at the time that Jesus spoke them.  They are intended to draw a response on that day… 100 years later… 1,000 years later… 1,500 years later… and today.

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            How do Jesus’ words speak to the dark corners of our hearts? As we refocus our understanding of the General Confession from something personal to a corporate confession, what are we moved to be and do?

            There is a reason the early church did not include the confession within the Eucharist during the season of Easter.  It was because they were redeemed, resurrected, new beings, by virtue of the Pascal Mystery.  They were called to celebrate that fact.

            But now, we are called by scripture and by our Lord to examine our community – our vineyard – and reflect on our bearing of fruit.

            The teachings of Jesus are not 2,000-year-old words with dust on them.  They are living and breathing words, calling us to reflection, prayer, and action today.